The Orienting Response

As I go through the flow of everyday life there are certain events that pull my attention. Some come to me externally – a car unexpectedly coming around the corner as I step off the curb. Others emerge from my inner life such as the awareness of a strain from sitting for too long peering into the screen of my computer.

In his book, Waking the Tiger, trauma therapist, Peter Levine calls this our orienting response. He describes it as a ‘what is it’ reflex organisms use when responding to novelty in their environment. When I say, “what is this?”, I create an important shift in consciousness. There is an “I” who is noticing a “this”. When I notice something in my environment I create the ground for a heightened interactive relationship that involves all parts of my embodied being from the subconscious responses of my cells right up to the conscious awareness of my cerebral cortex. All parts of my organism become involved in an awakening to sensory information about the moment.

Suppose I’m putting on my shoes before going out the door. When I say, “what is this?”, I create the potential to be present to every realm of my awareness. I notice there is strain in my neck and shoulders, probably because I am late. My breath is lightly caught in the cage of my ribs, my butt slightly lifted off the bench as I tie my laces. I am annoyed; I’m not sure at what.

But as I hold my perceptual frame of “what is this”, I notice a shift. I drop a bit into the surface of the bench, a breath breaks to the surface of my rib cage. My mood shifts; I relax.

Why? There’s a physiological event going on here. When I become more present to the sensations of my experience I softens the neural gates that function as filters to information coming in through my nervous system. The organizational patterns of my body use that increased information flow, making adjustments to the functioning of my system that shift my orientation to my environment. I experience that shift as a change in effort, positioning and mood.

Somatics theorist, Deane Juhan, describes my experience as a shift of awareness on the continuum between form and formation. In his groundbreaking work, Jobs Body, Juhan says “we are forms that are continually undergoing formation and reformation.” In Juhan’s physiologically based model, when we limit the information available to our system we draw upon memory, the accumulated habits of previously learned body response. I use the minimal amount of sensory information available to me to look for matches with pre-existing movements, firing the patterns of habitual response.

But the habituated response will be an approximation. It will never have the sophisticated nuances we identify with fully embodied response. When I move through the habits of hurrying out the door I am moving through a virtual environment composed of a mixture of historical responses fired into sequence by a minimal amount of sensory information. “What is this?” softens the doorways of perception giving my neural patterns fresh information and pulling me, through my very physiology, out of the past and into the present. Or, in Juhan’s language, out of the world of forms and into the world of formation, and continual reformation.

In our training program, the SomaLab, we use the orienting response as a frame that helps soften our habitual responses in a therapeutic engagement, giving the practitioner the widest array of sensory inputs about the object of our awareness. When working with another asking, “what is this”, includes scanning through all the possible sources of sensory information. Through asking the question we open our awareness of how we are oriented in space. We discover information about our sensory contact with external surfaces – the floor our feet meet with, the skin our hands are touching. We begin to notice internal surfaces – the movement of our respiratory system through our torso and the subtle sensory interactions of our organism to the internal feel of fluid, fascia, emotion and thought.

Building on this enriched sensory responsiveness we can introduce a secondary array of frames that hold an intention while leaving the widest possible conditions for response.

For example, you might try the question, “how does it want to go?” You can test this frame with a simple movement, such as raising your arm to the ceiling. Raise it first without asking the question, noting how your arm moves. Then, ask the question, “how does it want to go”, as you hold the intention of your arm raising. After years of demonstrating this simple exercise in workshops I can anticipate that you will most likely find notable changes in the sensory quality, direction, effort and speed of the movement.

As we move through life we are constantly having our attention pulled by events. And, if only in self defense, we screen many of the out leaving us increasingly dependent on our memory of movement, the habituated response.

When I wake up and become curious about the sensory experience of lying in bed. Or, when riding on the bus wondering exploring the sensations that tell me how my hip meets up against the seat, I’m not just doing an exercise in awareness. With each exploration I give my body essential information that it needs to adjust itself to a more responsive interaction with its universe. If I feel a bit stuck I might ask, “how does it want to go?” I allow my being to free itself, even just a bit, from the shapes and movements of habit.

I ask the question, and let the answer move me more fully into life